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D.O.A. (April 30, 1950)

D.O.A.
D.O.A. (1950)
Directed by Rudolph Maté
Cardinal Pictures / United Artists

The curse of high expectations strikes again.

Don’t get me wrong, D.O.A. is an excellent mystery that moves at a nice pace and has a great concept. But it’s been on my “must see” list since 1988, when the remake with Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan came out, so maybe it was a foregone conclusion that I’d find it a little disappointing. The fact that it’s regularly cited as one of the all-time great film noirs probably didn’t help either.

D.O.A. stars Edmond O’Brien as a big lug with a wandering eye who never took life or love too seriously until the day he was fatally poisoned. Suddenly, his purpose in life becomes crystal clear. He has to solve his own murder before he dies.

O'Brien

The characters O’Brien plays, Frank Bigelow, is an accountant in the small town of Banning, California. He’s been carrying on an affair with his confidential secretary, Paula Gibson (Pamela Britton), but she seems much more serious about their future than he does. Bigelow tells her he’s pulling away from her because he doesn’t want to see her get hurt. When Bigelow suddenly has to travel up to San Francisco on business, she sees it as an opportunity for him to decide whether he’s serious about her or not. He sees it as a chance to paint the town red.

Bigelow goes out for a wild night on the town with a bunch of soused guys and gals who are in town for Market Week. He winds up at The Fisherman, a jumping jazz club where Bigelow doesn’t fit in with the “jive-crazy” patrons. (Neither does the bartender, who admits to Bigelow that he doesn’t “get it.” He’s a Guy Lombardo fan.) At the bar, a mysterious figure drops something in Bigelow’s bourbon and fades away into the night.

Sick to his stomach the next morning, Bigelow visits a doctor and finds out he has ingested a “luminous toxin,” a poison that attacks the organs. Bigelow only has a day or two to live … a week at the most.

O'Brien and Brand

D.O.A. is a well-made and entertaining B movie, and has lots of great footage of both San Francisco and Los Angeles, but I just can’t rate it as highly as the film noirs I consider masterpieces, like Detour (1945) and Out of the Past (1947). With those movies, there’s a sense of existential dread below the surface. They work on more than one level, I find myself coming back to them over and over, and they haunt my imagination.

I was expecting something similar with D.O.A., but O’Brien galumphs through the proceedings like a man with a hangover, angrily shaking down suspects and browbeating people for leads. After the poisoning, the film moves at a nice clip, but I never got the sense that Frank Bigelow was a man who was truly facing death. I also found the supporting characters mostly uninteresting, and Bigelow’s verbal exchanges with them were too often just information dumps.

I watched D.O.A. twice, but I still can’t really keep any of the supporting characters straight. The only person who really stands out for me is Neville Brand as Chester, a sadistic henchman who refers to himself in the third person.

After I watched D.O.A., I thought back to another B noir that starred Edmond O’Brien, The Web (1947). D.O.A. is considered an all-time classic, and every fan of film noirs has heard of it. The Web, on the other hand, seems mostly forgotten. But The Web has a better villain (Vincent Price), a much more interesting female lead (Ella Raines), and dialogue that is much more clever and entertaining than the dialogue in D.O.A.

So why is D.O.A. so highly regarded, while The Web is a movie no one remembers? I really think it comes down to the fact that D.O.A. has a crackerjack concept. The beginning and end of the film are incredibly strong, but I just didn’t find the film as a whole to be all that it’s cracked up to be.

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Cornered (Dec. 25, 1945)

Cornered was director Edward Dmytryk’s second film to star Dick Powell. Powell was a boyish crooner and star of musical comedies who made a 180 degree turn into hard-boiled noir territory at the age of 39 when he played detective Philip Marlowe in Dmytryk’s film Murder, My Sweet (1944), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely. Powell jumped into his new, hard-boiled persona with both feet. Between the two films, Powell started appearing every week on the Mutual Broadcasting System as private investigator Richard Rogue in the radio series Rogue’s Gallery. The series was mostly standard P.I. fare, but it featured one unique element; every time Rogue was knocked out (which was nearly every episode) he’d drift off to “Cloud Eight,” where his alter ego, a little white-bearded gnome named “Eugor,” would taunt him, occasionally dropping a clue for Rogue to pick up on later, when he’d regained consciousness.

Cornered has no fanciful elements like that one, and the devil-may-care charm Powell exhibited in Murder, My Sweet has been completely done away with. In Cornered he plays a broken man who will stop at nothing to exact vengeance.

When we first meet Flight Lieutenant Laurence Gerard (Powell), an RCAF pilot, he is in London, receiving £551 back pay for the time he spent as a P.O.W. His next stop is a passport office, where he seeks passage to France. He wants to settle his wife Celeste’s estate. She was a French citizen, and they were married during the German occupation. When Gerard is told that all passports to the continent require investigation, and that it will take at least a month to clear, he walks out of the office without saying another word. In the next scene, he is alone in a rowboat, crossing the English Channel. When he sees land, he chops a hole in the hull, sinks the boat, and swims to shore.

In a muddy French town that is mostly rubble, Gerard meets with Etienne (Louis Mercier), a former resistance leader, and Celeste’s father. Gerard demands to know who is responsible for her death, and who betrayed her. “If there was any betrayal, I betrayed her, by fathering her in a century of violence,” Etienne tells him. Gerard doesn’t accept this circumspect response, and vows to hunt down the Vichy collaborator Marcel Jarnac, who ordered the killing of Celeste and several other members of the resistance. Jarnac supposedly died in a fire, but Gerard refuses to believe he is dead. He sets out with a single goal; to kill Jarnac.

Gerard follows Jarnac’s trail to Buenos Aires, and it is there that most of the film takes place. As soon as Gerard steps off the plane, he is approached by a fat man in a white suit. This man, Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), is an operator with no clear allegiances. Gerard is quickly drawn into a world where no one is what they seem. Former Nazis and their collaborators have fled to Buenos Aires, biding their time until the next great war, while a loose-knit, clandestine organization seeks to root them out. Incza introduces Gerard to Jarnac’s wife (or possibly widow), Mme. Madeleine Jarnac (Micheline Cheirel), and even her loyalties are unclear.

While it may sound like a globe-trotting adventure film, Cornered is really a claustrophobic film noir with healthy doses of paranoia and tension. The script, by John Paxton (with uncredited assistance from Ben Hecht), from a story by John Wexley, takes a run-of-the-mill manhunt plot and ratchets up the tension with crisp dialogue, excellent pacing, and a brutal finale. Harry J. Wild’s cinematography is classic film noir, with inky nighttime exteriors, close-quartered interiors, and actors’ shadows frequently preceding them into the frame.

Powell plays Gerard as a shell-shocked man who suffers from frequent headaches. He’s on a mission to avenge a woman to whom he was only married for 20 days. He’s an amateur doing the work of a detective, and while he’s clever enough to connect the dots, he’s still just one man at the mercy of forces beyond his comprehension. “You are sick with fear,” Mme. Jarnac tells him. “You’ve been hurt so deeply you cannot trust anyone but yourself.”

Is there a better description of the classic film noir protagonist?